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Interview with Stanley M. Burstein, World Historian


Figure 1
  Stanley M. Burstein  

      The following is the transcript of an interview with Stanley M. Burstein, a noted scholar of the Classical World who is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, Los Angeles and a former president of the Association of Ancient Historians. The interview relates how he, like many senior world historians, had no formal graduate training in world history, as then none existed, yet built his own world history plan study; how he discovered the World History Association through chance and circumstance; and how he contributed to it in many significant ways. The interview explores how Professor Burstein had to surmount many obstacles in his career and comments on those obstacles that still face those who become committed to research in, and the teaching of world history. He also offers remarks on current and possible future trends in the field. His most recent publication is “War, Elephants East and West,” appeared in the June 2020 (17.2) issue of this journal. This interview, conducted by its editor, Marc Jason Gilbert, followed shortly thereafter. As is often the case in Dr. Burstein’s work, the interview offers captivating research alongside illustrations, text, and student exercises designed to support the teaching of world history. A list of his major publications can be found at the conclusion of this interview. It includes an e-mail address to further communication with him on the subjects touched upon in the interview regarding a career as a world historian.

Gilbert: Can you tell us what got you interested in history?

Burstein: I have been interested in it as long as I can remember. My family was, to use old Marxist jargon, “proletarian,” and had no interest in higher education. I had books, however. There were books around the house, but nothing very elegant. Those I did like to read in elementary school and early secondary school tended to be a sort of popular history. I also had an old set of the Book of Knowledge, twenty years old, and I would wind up at the history sections. I obviously had a budding enthusiasm for it. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you that it goes back as far as I can remember. In high school, I thought about becoming an engineer, inspired no doubt by the US-Soviet Union “space race”. Then I realized that I was not very good at what you needed to do to be an engineer.

Happily, a community college professor, with a Mr. Wizard type TV show, visited my high school and encouraged my interest in history, if that was what I really loved. Originally my focus was U. S. history. I did have an interest in reading about Greece and Rome, but I had a wonderful high school U. S. history teacher and took an absolutely awful high school world history course that was merely Western Civilization of a sort with activities limited to answering the questions at the end of the chapters of the textbook. So, my enthusiasm was on the U. S. side. And then being from an immigrant family it also seemed somehow to connect. I was always interested in how immigrants became Americans. I heard some stories about it from my parents. They were not what you would call upbeat. The assimilation process that my uncles went through was humiliating, sometimes brutal. But it was a fascinating result. So, in a strange way lurking in the background was a world history question. How do people change cultures? They could not formulate it that way in high school obviously, but I would read about ancient history as an avocation while I was thinking of U. S. history as the serious stuff.

On my own, I read popular books on world and ancient history—Edith Hamilton’s books on Greek and Roman history, not very exciting now, but very influential. Will Durant’s early volumes, which at least were some of the first history books that were fun. You did not have to like Durant’s interpretation, but he could really write. My Western Civ teachers at UCLA were magnificent lecturers, very charismatic, and I had also gotten more serious about ancient history. I had read a translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and I was fascinated by the fact that I didn’t see any of the cant I found in so many popular U. S. history books. I had also become intrigued by references to a hitherto unknown Greek history discovered in Egypt and known only as the Oxyrhynchus History.

UCLA was a different place in the early sixties from what it is now, not yet a great university, but a good one, with approachable young historians destined for greatness. I was taken to meet the new ancient historian, Mortimer Chambers, to ask where I could find a translation of the Oxyrhynchus History. This was kind of scary for a freshman still in awe of his high school teachers, but Chambers was very friendly, as was his office-mate, a historian of India, Stanley Wolpert. Fifty years later, Chambers told me that I was his first student at UCLA and that helped because, although I was still a freshman, he told me that, if I was getting more interested in the Greeks, I would have to learn Greek and Latin. And if I wanted, he’d let me take his Greek history course as a sophomore instead of a junior. And one thing led to another. I mean professors have an enormous impact on you, and UCLA had a bunch of ones who sent me in the direction I was to follow ever since.

One of them was a historian of technology, Lynn T. White, who told us he got interested in technology because he had visited Europe before the Second World War in the thirties and knew war was coming and wondered what he could do if he was cut off from European libraries. Technology struck him as a solution and that, oddly enough, led him to look at the increase in productivity in agriculture and the violence of European warfare in the High Middle Ages. That led him to become interested in the sort of things that William McNeil was interested in—diffusion of people, disease, and ideas across Eurasia. He was interested in where waterwheels, windmills, stirrups, and lateen sails came from.

This enabled me to recognize that ancient and medieval history tended to be broader than the traditional western European focus. No one called it world history at the time, but in a rather disorganized way people in that field were beginning to ask those type of questions. I also took a cultural anthropology course and found that cross-cultural questions were a large part of that scholarship, so I was further nudged in that direction.

Gilbert: What was the course of your early career?

Burstein: One of those directions I did not pursue was a doctoral dissertation on ancient Athens. I tried another subject—Greek contact with ancient Africa--and worked on it forever, while also working at my first, and, as it turned out, only teaching job at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State). At that time, to be hired you needed only a doctoral thesis in progress, but I was teaching fulltime, and my wife and I had baby on the way. Then, after two years, and I went to my thesis director, T. S. Brown, at UCLA, eyes full of tears as I told him that I couldn’t do this, and that I had to start over again on an entirely new subject. This was a horrifying thing to do. My wife stood by me, which was wonderful. My director was tough. He told me I had to grow up and buckle down. He came up with a dissertation topic that he said, “I know you can do,” which was a frontier topic: a history of a Greek city on the edge of Greek civilization, along the Black Sea, which, in fact, I did do. The next two and a half years as I worked on it were the most agonizing years of my career.

Fortunately, my History Department at Cal State LA stood by me. The Dean was willing to put up with waiting for me to finish it, but just barely. I finished the thesis in February of 1972, one month before they were going to fire me.

The net effect of all this was that I had developed a broad background in what amounts to a world history topic—frontier zones of the old world and also what the world historian Philip Curtin was to call diasporas, in my case, Greek diasporas and cross-cultural interactions in two areas: Northeast Africa and the Black Sea. The other thing I learned is that scholars who work in borderlands and cross-cultural interactions tend to be rather friendly and helpful if someone else is interested in these areas. When I was trying my hand at my first serious article on Northeast Africa, I wrote to the anthropological archeologist and historian William Y. Adams, who was the “go to” person for the civilization at Kush during the Greco-Roman and medieval periods. Kush was then a marginal subject in historical studies, but I knew that not only was it the earliest known major state in the African interior but also the bridge between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean. In short, it was the sort of frontier topic that interested me. Anyway, I sent Bill a letter and asked him questions. It was not a very good letter. In fact. his reaction was to wonder if I knew what I was talking about. I had to write back again, more carefully this time. But after that I realized that I had acquired a true mentor in this area.

Gilbert: How did come to see world history as teaching field as well as research field?

Burstein: Cal State LA is a comprehensive university offering degrees up to the Masters Degree level. It is attended primarily by first generation students, so general education is an important part of its curriculum. In the 1980’s we went through one of our periodic General Education course revisions. At that time, the History Department faculty had been arguing about whether we should teach world history or western civilization. The university decided that for us. We were told that we could continue to teach Western civilization if we wanted, but they were not going to give us General Education teaching credits for it. On the other hand, if we wanted that credit (important for keeping faculty positions), we had to teach world history. So somewhere around the middle 80’s we all were suddenly thrown into teaching world history courses, in the same way as people now are being thrown into online education. How did we do this? I taught the first part of the sequence which ended at 500 c.e. Needless to say, one started with what you knew.

I had been teaching western civilization, so I started with that as a core and began expanding it. I also started reading like hell. Fortunately, I stumbled into the World History Association, and I began reading whatever I could glean from their activities. Then serendipity happened. In 1989 I was a visiting professor at UCLA, filling in for Mortimer Chambers. One of my colleagues’ wives was a research assistant for the National Center for History in the Schools, which had just started up. She had two weeks to develop a full bibliography on ancient history for some project. So, I started feeding her books. Through her, I became attached to the work of the early National Center for Teaching History in the Schools, which included vetting teaching units developed at their educational institutes and whose authors wanted to publish them through the National Center. The ancient history teaching units needed a lot of work, so I was suddenly involved in pedagogical approaches to history. I eventually became involved with the State of California Department of Education, and also connected to the National Standards for History in the Schools project. I became one of the latter’s task force leaders for ancient history, a world history project. So, if through the back door and by necessity, I had become involved in the development of a world history curriculum.

Then, it happened that the Cal State History Department had taken over the university’s program for the training of History-Social Science teachers, and I became the director of that program. In California, that program taught teachers how to teach a curriculum that was a cross between world history and western civilization. I then became involved at the state level in developing the standards for teacher training. Again, one thing led to another. In the mid-1990s I became involved with the Educational Testing Services(ETS) and its Advance Placement Task Force to develop the AP World History program. I was the ancient historian; Peter N. Stearns was the overall director.

Gilbert: How did you become connected to the World History Association?

Burstein: It was when I attended my first World History Association annual meeting. I can’t remember where that one was. I enjoyed those meetings a lot. I was usually the only ancient historian there. But it was friendly and one of the advantages of being the only ancient historian there was not only that I could not pontificate, but that I had to attend all kinds of panels I never would have thought of attending at other meetings. As a result, I got a real introduction to the broad reach of world history and eventually met world historians such as Al Andrea, Jerry Bentley, Craig Lockard and Robert Strayer. I also got to work with Ross Dunn due to our mutual work for the national History Standards project.

It would have been good if I had gone to a structured graduate world history program, but none existed while I was a graduate student in the 1960s. Still, finding my way into world history through the back door has worked well for me. Of course, I have to read like hell and talk to people and so stay connected to the field to fill it out. One of the most distinctive thing about WHA meetings is that they are incredibly friendly. Of course, at the same time, I have continued my membership in the Association of Ancient Historians.

Gilbert: What do you think about the future of the field of world history?

Burstein: Actually, I’ve written a couple of things about it from the ancient historian’s point of view. I don’t doubt that all of the traditional fields, such as European ancient and medieval studies, will broaden, because there are simply too many problems that scream for cross-cultural analysis. One of the earliest cross-cultural developments that attracted the interest of European historians was their attempt to see a global process at work in Japanese feudalism, as they called it. It is pretty hard to find topics, whether it is urbanism or global trade, where you don’t have to broaden out the scope of your analysis. I think that it is inevitable that a world historical approach is going to impact most parts of the discipline. What does concern me about some world history historians is their tendency to narrow its focus to the periods they are comfortable with. I was at a meeting, I think it was at a conference sponsored by the California World History Association, where some argued that world history really begins in 1800. Now leave aside that I am a historian of the ancient world, I think that approach is self-defeating. It doesn’t mean that every world historian has to be able to write about 5th century Persia, but one of the field’s great strengths has been its breadth. It clearly should be home to people who study pre-modern history and embrace the Sumerians, Vedic Indians, and the Maya as part of world history.

Gilbert: What do you think of Big History?

Burstein: The ambition to do a natural history of humanity, which is what Big History is, is a very old one. Moreover, as an integration of the natural, structural and social sciences and history I think it has great pedagogical potential. The natural sciences tend to gravitate toward the history of the universe. Among the books I loved to read as a high school student was the old Time-Life The World We Live In. It was essentially a Big history. I am much more dubious about it as a research field. Quite frankly the attempts I have seen to do Big history could just as well be published in the Journal of World History. William McNeil’s foundational work in World History, Plagues and Peoples (1964) is basically a Big History study and McNeil contributed to the first number of the Journal of World History. There is also the problem that the periodization pursed by Big Historians is so broad that you almost erase the differences between China and Rome, India. That is too general.

Gilbert: That brings us to the nest question: If history is reasoned discourse of the past, what happens when the individual disappears in the broader historical narrative that Jerry Bentley called the Grand Narrative?

Burstein: Can you really image the 20th century without Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler? Big history tends to be useful in seeing history in the broadest perspective, and there are cases were one individual wouldn’t matter much in terms of the grand narrative. My favorite example is Columbus. Columbus is quite a remarkable man in many ways, but if he did not sail to the Americas, given the large-scale of the forces at work in the during the Age of Western Exploration, someone would have “discovered” the “new world” in the near term. Global pandemics do not spread by the decision a single person. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine the history of Asia without the Buddha. I don’t think you can take the individual wholly out of the picture, but even the most influential individual worked in a historical context, and that has always to be considered.

Gilbert: Well, perhaps only Moses could have led the Biblical Exodus, but he was acting in accord with what many regard as the grandest narrative of them all. It is entirely appropriate to end this interview on that note. My thanks to Stanley Burstein, a longtime and valued member of the World History community.

Stanley M. Burstein research focuses on relations between Greeks and non-Greeks in the Hellenistic Period. His numerous publications include: Outpost of Hellenism: The Emergence of Heraclea on the Black Sea (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), The Hellenistic Age from the battle of Ipsos to the death of Kleopatra VII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Agatharchides of Cnidus, On the Erythraean Sea (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1989), and The World from 1000 BCE to 300 CE (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). He can be contacted at


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